The celebration continues: CITRIS highlights progress in 20th anniversary year

CITRIS facilities and research projects, logo for CITRIS 20th anniversary, logos for UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Merced and UC Santa Cruz.

To honor two decades of IT solutions for the public good, CITRIS and the Banatao Institute reaffirm a commitment to empowering University of California students, accelerating deep tech entrepreneurship, diversifying the STEM workforce, and leading the charge in climate and aviation research with interdisciplinary collaboration.

As the end of 2021 approaches, the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society and the Banatao Institute (CITRIS) continue to celebrate two decades of information technology innovation for the public good. 

In the 20 years since its 2001 launch, CITRIS, one of four California Institutes for Science and Innovation created by Gov. Gray Davis and the California legislature, has cultivated a vibrant community of researchers and trailblazers. Thousands of dedicated faculty, staff, students and partners across four campuses — UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Merced and UC Santa Cruz — have joined in CITRIS’s mission to explore technological solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.

To honor recent achievements and debut strategic plans for its next five years, CITRIS will host a virtual public showcase Nov. 16 at CITRIS Day, its annual gathering for industry partners and friends. The event will feature remarks from academic leaders, industry executives and public officials and highlight the areas in which CITRIS will concentrate its contributions to California and the world.  

“We look forward to reflecting on CITRIS’s innovative contributions over the last two decades and spotlighting new directions in this special CITRIS Day. We are honored to be joined by illustrious guest speakers and benefactors to celebrate the institute’s distinguished history and bright future,” said CITRIS Director Costas Spanos.

Empowering student discovery

Students are the University of California’s most important resource, and their successes are CITRIS’s successes. With their work comes fresh insight and unique perspectives on society’s most difficult and nuanced problems. 

CITRIS is excited to increase its capacity to support students with supplemental funding for workforce development from the state, thanks to a one-time award included in the FY 2022 budget. CITRIS will use the funds to expand internship and fellowship opportunities to help place undergraduate and graduate students in a range of tech sectors.

Students engaging in various projects at the CITRIS Invention Lab.

An exemplary model for the internship efforts is the Cal Energy Corps, co-sponsored by CITRIS and the California Institute for Energy and Environment. Open to UC Berkeley undergraduates, the program matches students with full-time, paid summer internships on climate and sustainability projects in the public and private sectors. The latest cohort presented their work at a virtual symposium Sept. 28. 

CITRIS Tech for Social Good (TSG) provides funding for student teams to develop products, research projects and events with a positive impact on real-world problems. At UC Davis, the Women Machinists’ Club used their recent TSG award to purchase Arduino kits for classmates who had never had the chance to experiment with programming — and then led them in a virtual workshop. 

At UC Santa Cruz, the most recent TSG cycle funded, among others, projects that created a virtual skills training curriculum for people incarcerated in local jails and that built bulk refill stations to reduce plastic consumption. The latter group, called Wonderfil, was selected to further develop their product in the CITRIS Foundry’s six-month technology incubator program.

The Wonderfil team is far from the only student group to make use of the Foundry, with student-led projects making up roughly three-quarters of the fall 2021 cohort. The incubator offers extensive support for students’ entrepreneurial ambitions, featuring one-on-one coaching, guided workshops on business fundamentals, and access to research and prototyping facilities. 

Planting seeds to grow tech solutions 

Many CITRIS Foundry alumni have seen marked success in the past year, a demonstration of CITRIS’s ability to boost the state’s economy and a fitting testament to the institute’s mission to address large-scale problems with new market applications. 

Among those recent highlights is Lion Semiconductor, a venture from the Foundry’s inaugural cohort in 2013. The company produces more efficient mobile device charging and power management and was acquired in July by microchip manufacturer Cirrus Logic for $335 million. 

A startup from the 2014 cohort, Clarity Movement Co., uses low-cost air quality sensors and smart devices to provide precise, scalable air pollution modeling. As of 2021, the company has raised over $7 million and delivered its sensing services to more than 60 countries.

CITRIS Foundry alums WattTime, Clarity Movement Co. and GenEdit.

WattTime, another 2014 Foundry alum, develops software for smart devices that makes it possible to sync energy use with cleaner power sources. In October, WattTime announced a partnership with Google on Nest Renew, a service for the industry-leading smart thermostat that lets consumers automatically prioritize clean energy.

And 2016 venture GenEdit, which develops safer gene therapy using nonviral, nonlipid polymer nanoparticles, raised $26 million in series A funding. Investors include Eli Lilly and Co. and nearly a dozen other backers. 

The entrepreneurial ecosystem at CITRIS extends beyond the Foundry. By supporting innovative, early-stage collaborative research projects, the Seed Funding program catalyzes nascent results that can lead to follow-on funding from industry partners and government agencies. 

The 2020 award round saw 68 proposals, featuring principal investigators from all four CITRIS campuses. Out of a diverse field of submissions, seven teams each received a one-time award of $60,000. The projects ranged in topic from preventing falls in older adults to standardizing electric vehicle charging data to measuring success in mentoring programs for women in tech fields. 

A special seed funding call in response to COVID-19 garnered nearly one hundred proposals and funded an additional 31 projects. This research addressed many aspects of the pandemic’s impact, from testing, treatment and transmission to genomics and virology, policy and privacy.

Building and supporting a diverse, inclusive tech workforce

Statistics on gender, racial and ethnic representation in STEM fields in the U.S. show some progress in increasing diversity in recent years — but the numbers also underscore how much work remains to achieve equity. To help create a tech workforce that reflects society, CITRIS has made diversity, equity and inclusion a pillar in its research and outreach endeavors.

At the forefront of CITRIS’s efforts is the Expanding Diversity and Gender Equity in Tech Initiative (or EDGE in Tech). Formerly known as Women in Tech, EDGE in Tech is a collaboration between CITRIS and the UC Berkeley College of Engineering that focuses on intersectionality and equitable representation for marginalized communities in technology. Core programming includes the Diversity in Tech Symposium, EDGE in Tech Athena Awards and a biannual Leadership Roundtable

EDGE in Tech speakers and awardees.

“CITRIS has been an invaluable partner for the College of Engineering in addressing root causes for underrepresentation in the tech industry,” said Tsu-Jae King Liu, dean of the UC Berkeley College of Engineering and co-founder of EDGE in Tech. “We are excited to evolve this initiative to promote equitable access for underrepresented groups more broadly.”

In the past year, the CITRIS People and Robots initiative has partnered with the nonprofit Silicon Valley Robotics to offer a platform to underrepresented roboticists. The Black in Robotics affinity group was founded after a June 2020 event, and initiative leadership are currently co-chairing the BiR ally committee. CITRIS also supports the Women in Robotics group, which recently launched a photo challenge aimed at improving representation in internet image search results.

CITRIS is proud to collaborate with Girls in Engineering, a Berkeley Engineering program that offers a weeklong summer camp to Bay Area middle school students and high school students, on special laboratory tours and experiential activities. The partnership continues in the digital realm: Drawing from lessons learned at the dynamic 2021 virtual camp, the CITRIS Invention Lab will lead a two-hour online GiE workshop on prototyping and fabrication on Nov. 13. 

In the Sacramento area, CITRIS helps to serve secondary school students from backgrounds underrepresented in STEM through the UC Davis Drone Academy. The Federal Aviation Administration-funded program uses uncrewed aircraft systems to demonstrate physics and engineering principles. The academy saw an enthusiastic return to campus this summer after a virtual camp in 2020.  

CITRIS at UC Merced offers a similar hands-on experience to middle schoolers in the San Joaquin Valley with NexTech Robotics. Designed and led by computer science and engineering undergraduates, NexTech brings programming projects to the region’s historically marginalized population. In 2021, the program spread its reach even further with online courses using web emulators.

Also headquartered at UC Merced, ¡Valle! provides mentoring, skills training and networking opportunities to undergraduate women, people of color, people with disabilities and financially disadvantaged students in STEM fields at colleges and universities throughout the Central Valley. ¡Valle!, now in its fourth year thanks to continued support from Google, is actively recruiting its next cohort.

Fostering a multidisciplinary approach to climate and sustainability

CITRIS has a storied legacy of seeking solutions to critical concerns in sustainability and climate change mitigation. 

Building on those achievements, CITRIS has launched a new climate initiative under the leadership of faculty director Michele Barbato, a structural engineer at UC Davis. CITRIS Climate integrates the California Institute for Energy and Environment (CIEE) and other well-established research units to cultivate a core group of researchers and educators at the interface of climate change research and information technology.

CITRIS Climate generates ideas and technologies to help California meet its energy goals with an extensive slate of projects and a wide range of partnerships. Earlier this year, CITRIS announced a partnership with the National Science Foundation Building Efficiency for a Sustainable Tomorrow Center, a nationwide collaborative that promotes state-of-the-art education about energy efficiency for building technicians. The EcoBlock project continues to transform a block in the Fruitvale district of Oakland with advanced energy efficiency retrofits, a solar-powered microgrid and shared electric vehicles. In October, Daniel Kammen, EcoBlock’s co-primary investigator, was selected to serve as a senior advisor for the U.S. Agency for International Development. 

Researchers at CITRIS at UC Merced have also shown great progress in sustainability projects in 2021, reflecting the campus’s reputation as one of the most sustainable universities in the country. Just this year, two faculty members with CITRIS affiliations were named to the advisory board for the state’s water efficiency program, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture established two major initiatives at UC Merced: a $20 million institute focused on integrating artificial intelligence into on-farm decision-making, and a $10 million research collaborative that aims to increase agricultural and environmental water resilience.

Advancing aviation research for a changing planet

The field of aviation is on the cusp of transformative change, with low-carbon commercial transportation, urban air mobility and ubiquitous uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) forecast to make a profound effect on our lives and environment. 

To harness the myriad opportunities raised by discoveries in materials and novel applications of AI and automation, and to make use of the unique facilities and programs across its four campuses, CITRIS is creating a new research initiative to advance aviation technologies, operations and policies. CITRIS Aviation will draw on the talents of a multicampus team of around 60 aviation experts that meets monthly. The working group has already enabled collaborations previously inaccessible to individual researchers.

This fall saw the launch of the inaugural CITRIS Aviation Prize, in partnership with the UC Berkeley Institute for Transportation Studies. The competition challenges students to design, develop and demonstrate an autonomous, long-range UAV flight with vertical takeoff and landing. The winning proposal is expected to take flight in spring 2022. 

Collage of aviation-themed images, including several with students flying UAVs on the UC Merced campus.

Alongside its soaring Drone Academy outreach program, CITRIS at UC Davis also supports Habitats Optimized for Missions of Exploration (HOME), a seven-university NASA Space Technology Research Institute headquartered at UC Davis. HOME investigates critical technologies for semi-autonomous deep-space habitats and will open in 2022. 

CITRIS at UC Merced has a strong record of aviation research and outreach, with the campus hosting the UC Center of Excellence on Unmanned Aircraft System Safety and boasting the second largest student branch of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in the country. CITRIS affiliates have also helped to promote aviation to underrepresented UC Merced students, with programs such as the UAS4STEM ecosystem

With the aim of supporting research and industry growth, UC Santa Cruz launched CIDER — the CITRIS Initiative for Drone Education and Research — last month. CIDER will educate students and faculty about drone development and use. CITRIS at UC Santa Cruz also partnered with the Monterey Bay Drone, Automation and Robotics Technology initiative and other organizations on a virtual version of their popular DroneCamp this summer, as well as a three-day, three-venue symposium on the application of drone technology in mobility, security and the environment in the fall.

Helping to create a brighter future 

In addition to its research initiatives in climate, aviation, robotics and inclusion, CITRIS continues its significant investments in health and tech policy. Despite unprecedented challenges posed by COVID-19 and related disruptions, CITRIS has made significant strides in its anniversary year. By exploring new initiatives and facilitating cutting-edge research, the institute continues to shape the future of information technology and to deliver solutions that improve people’s lives. 

“We look forward to building on the innovation, ingenuity and strong social commitment of CITRIS faculty, staff, students and startups to serve the state of California for the next two decades and beyond,” says CITRIS Executive Director Camille Crittenden. “I hope those who have collaborated with CITRIS over the years, as well as those who may be curious about how to get involved, will join us for the special event on Nov. 16.”

The celebration on CITRIS Day takes place 1–2 p.m., and all are welcome. Registration is required.

CITRIS Day 2021: Celebrating 20 Years of Impact and Innovation took place Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021.